Report: Theme park attendance was a roller coaster in 2021

Oct 18, 2022, 12:05 PM | Updated: 12:31 pm
FILE - Visitors pose for photos outside the Disney Resort theme park, Thursday, June 30, 2022, in S...

FILE - Visitors pose for photos outside the Disney Resort theme park, Thursday, June 30, 2022, in Shanghai. Last year was a roller coaster ride for theme parks and museums worldwide, with some places approaching pre-pandemic levels and others like parks in China struggling with lockdowns, according to a new report. (AP Photo/Chen Si, File)

(AP Photo/Chen Si, File)

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Last year was a roller coaster ride for theme parks worldwide, with U.S. water parks approaching pre-pandemic levels and parks in China struggling with lockdowns, according to a new report.

The speed of recovery was greatly influenced by the level of government restrictions, the success of vaccine rollouts and consumer confidence levels, according to the TEA/AECOM 2021 Theme Index and Museum Index: The Global Attractions Attendance Report.

The annual report, which was released last Friday, usually ranks theme parks by attendance but held off on doing that in the 2021 report because of disparities in operating conditions worldwide — and even within countries. Instead, it compared 2021 attendance with pre-pandemic 2019 attendance. Many of the theme parks don’t release attendance figures, and for those that don’t, the index used financial reports, local tourism groups and investment banking reports to calculate them.

In the U.S. last year, theme parks recaptured about two-thirds of their attendance from 2019, but the year marked an upward trajectory with attendance increasing by 134% over figures from 2020, when most theme parks were shuttered for several months in an effort to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, according to the report.

But even in the U.S., theme parks operated under different conditions in 2021, even when they were owned by the same company. For instance, the Florida parks owned by Universal had higher attendance than those in California because Florida’s COVID-19 restrictions ended earlier.

Because COVID-19 restrictions limited visits from international travelers, U.S. theme parks relied more on their local markets and emphasized season pass sales. The pandemic forced many theme parks to expand advance reservation systems and dynamic pricing, which has added to the bottom line, the report said.

U.S. water parks approached their pre-pandemic figures because of their shorter season, which lined up with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, access to vaccinations and before the omicron wave peaked, the report said.

Many U.S. theme parks also were investing in new rides, such as SeaWorld, which announced Tuesday that it will open three new coasters next year. A surfing-like coaster will open in Orlando, a coaster in which riders straddle their seats like a motorcycle is slated for San Diego and a flume coaster is set for San Antonio.

“Responding to guest expectations for new attractions and capital will be key for 2023 and beyond,” the report said.

The theme park with the largest attendance worldwide in 2019, the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida, had 12.6 million visitors in 2021, about 60% of its attendance two years earlier, but an 82% jump over 2020, the report said.

Attendance at the next busiest theme park, Disneyland Park in Anaheim, Calif., was only 45% of its pre-pandemic level in 2021, but up 133% over 2020. The park drew 8.5 million visitors in 2021, according to the report.

Attendance at Chinese theme parks in 2021 was about half of what it was pre-pandemic, and only about 25% above 2020 figures.

“China, the engine behind Asia’s growth in recent years, struggled with lockdowns, quarantines, and travel restrictions,” the report said.

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Report: Theme park attendance was a roller coaster in 2021